A friend of mine asked me the other day if we went to the beach regularly when I was a kid. Since we lived four hours from the ocean, she thought it would have been a normal activity for us to enjoy. Unfortunately, we were not a normal family.
I answered that, no, we didn’t regularly go to the beach and that I did not go to the beach with my family until I was an adult. Every year, we traveled from Virginia to Weatherford Texas, to visit relatives. Every year, we would load up the car, pack homemade cookies and sandwiches, include a jug of apple juice, and begin the drive to Texas. Every year, we returned from Texas never wanting to smell, taste, see, or hear about apple juice. Ever. Apple juice smell has a half-life of 3200 years. It sticks around forever.
Most years, we traveled during the summer, when school was out for vacation, which allowed all three kids and Mom and Dad to have the stress-free environment of a 22-hour car ride. Imagine the scene. The three kids would ride in the back of the car, unless Mom fell asleep. Then one of us would be required to sit up front. Unfortunately for those years, we sat in a small Toyota Corolla without the benefit of a portable DVD player or Satellite Radio.
Thus, our vacations became a type of contest, with the person who could sleep the most during the trip won a special award: sanity. Family unity doesn’t come any better than when you’re stuck with each other without benefit of fresh air or DVD player. In addition to the close proximity—one does not move very easily in a 1979 Toyota Corolla—we discovered that the vacation time created something we did not experience during the non-vacation time. It’s called boredom.
After years of research on my family, boredom has one distinct result. We all become very annoying. On these car trips, my Dad would not allow anyone else to drive because he says he can’t sleep when someone else is at the wheel. To compensate for the exhaustion Dad would feel—usually around the 18-hour point, Texarkana—he would blare the radio, turn on the air conditioner all the way, and begin singing whatever happened to come through the speakers. You don’t know fear until you hear the words to “Take This Job and Shove It” being sung at full throat while the air conditioner of a Toyota Corolla emits a sound similar to that of a whale belching. As a ten-year-old boy, the scars remain. I still can’t hear Johnny Paycheck sing without the air conditioner blasting.
In fairness to Dad, there were others in the car who may have had an annoying trick or two. For instance, my mother would ration cookies. I think back on those days of rationing cookies and I think, “What could have motivated this woman, other than sadism, to torture her family in such a way?” We had three ravenously hungry boys who could have eaten the head rests, if given enough ketchup, and she’s rationing cookies! The outrage! And we ate, according to the schedule set by mother. Four hours to the border of Virginia, then you can have a cookie. Just one. Although Mom baked enough to fill up the trunk, only one may be eaten at a time.
Four more hours into Tennessee, and then you can have a sandwich and some apple juice.
Four more hours until Memphis, another cookie. And so on.
Every four hours, we got something else, until we got to Texas.
We still talk about this maneuver at holidays. Sheer psychological devastation.
And then there were us boys. I am certain we had the normal “he hit me” or “he won’t stay on his side” arguments, but they didn’t last long. Either Mom or Dad had the talent necessary to stop a silly argument in a minute. (There’s nothing like threatening to abandon your child in Jackson, Tennessee, to get that kid behaving again. Even though we were cramped, we knew we didn’t want to start life over in Jackson.)
No, we had other problems. Take, for instance, our diet during these trips. Apple juice, tuna fish sandwiches and cookies. Want something else? Tough it out. Got a hankerin’ for baloney? Too bad. Want to nibble on some Doritos? Not in this lifetime. We’ll get to Nanny’s house and you can gain ten pounds in a day and a half. Until then, fill your gut with some tuna.
As little boys will do, we had bodily reactions to such a diet. By the end of the trip, our car smelled like a strange mixture of apple juice and used tuna. Sure, Mom or Dad could have declared a moratorium on the exhalation of all gas, but we would have done it anyway because, to boys, gas is too much entertainment to pass up.